Filmmakers


Transmissions

 

A man putting off a cigarette on his wrist, midwives being trained to handle childbirths with a plastic baby, an actor roleplaying as a traumatized war veteran with the help of a virtual-reality software, visitors at a Vietnam War memorial in Washington caressing the engraved names of the deceased, a group of architects discussing how to maximize the amount of time a buyer spends in a shopping complex, a mock Iraqi village set up in California with Iranians and Pakistanis intended to train American GIs. These are but some of the unmistakable images from the films of German documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki, who passed away last week at the age of 70. Farocki’s output, which spans the genres of filmic essays, Direct Cinema documentaries and multi-screen installations, is among the most intellectually piercing and artistically rich bodies of work made in the last 50 years anywhere in the world.

Born to an Indian father and a German mother in 1944, Farocki was taken at a very early age to the work of Bertolt Brecht, who, along with Theodor Adorno, had a deep impact on his filmmaking style. As a student, he was actively engaged in the student movement in West Germany and was, as a result, rusticated from the film academy. Inextinguishable Fire (1969), which Farocki made during that period, contrasts the horrifying effects of Napalm B on the human body with the amoral, scientific detachment with which it was developed in the laboratories of the Dow Chemical Company. This phenomenon of the alienation of labour from its products – the defining characteristic of industrial era – and the absence of individual moral accountability in hierarchical corporate capitalism haunts the entirety of his 45-year working life.

A lifelong Marxist, Farocki examined the ever-changing face of industrial production, continuously investigating what exactly constitutes such production and what labour means in an age in which the boundary between productive and not-productive work has become fuzzy. His last, unfinished installation project, Labour in a Single Shot (2011-2014), which consists of a collection of shots showing people at work in 15 different cities simultaneously projected on 15 screens, probes into this shape-shifting nature of labour and its increasingly invisible place in the scheme of things.

Such a desire to get to the heart of modern capitalist practice is also what informs the series of observational documentaries – fly-on-the-wall films in which the filmmaker abstains from intruding on what is being filmed and instead simply plays the non-participative spectator – which Farocki made from the 90s onwards. In these works, we typically see a group of white-collar workers coming together to conceive and realize a project, such as the construction of a mall, the forging of a deal between an investment company and a startup, training of interview candidates or the design of a new corporate office space. As they unfold we are made privy to something that is all too elusive in the technocratic society of ours – the presence of rational, human decisions underpinning the actions of systems larger than them. In these sound-proof rooms of glass and steel, we witness the crystallization of an entire socio-economic climate around individual choices – the materialization of ideology in the realm of the visible.

This constant osmosis between the domain of ideas and that of real things is a theme that binds all of Farocki’s work. These films recognize the progressive abstraction of tangible things into intangible notions – the translation of use value of commodities to its market value and the subsequent transformation of hard money to vague stock market numbers – and the continuous virtualization of the real. They throw in relief the fact that, in the sphere of production and marketing, material things are merely temporary containers in which one abstract idea (the idea of happiness and satisfaction for the consumer upon buying the product) is realized before it is converted to another (the advertising image). Taken together, these films form an elegy for materiality, a testimony to the loss of tactility of objects.

Nowhere else was this loss as sharp and complete as in Farocki’s own professional practice, in which he had to move from working with film stock, to shooting with analog video, and then to making films with digital cameras. The increased digitization of shooting, editing, storing and distributing of films, for Farocki, rhymes with the increased depersonalization of manual labour. Data from the real world is stored as electrical charge in computers, then abstract images are formed out of these charges and finally the real world is reshaped with these very images, thus closing the loop. The pre-existing filmic material used in Farocki’s films – surveillance videos, engineering models, reconnaissance footage, and scientific data feeds – attest to the centrality of machine-captured images in military, economic, social and legal processes today: supermarkets are architected according to the walking patterns of consumers, defense strategies are planned out based on video game designs, psychological traumas are treated with virtual-reality games and prison facilities are controlled and regulated through interactive CCTV setups.

The image, of course, is the primordial object of study in Farocki’s films. These works delve into the history of modern image making – from the diminishing perspective of Renaissance architecture which anointed sight as the preeminent sense to the flattened images of aerial photography that gave birth to both Cubist art and wartime telecasts – to explore how the cinematic image has time and again been the tool of choice for subjugation and how it has unwittingly played its part in the concentration and abuse of power. “The history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception”, wrote Paul Virilio. Farocki’s films echo this observation and demonstrate how, in modern warfare, wars terrains are mapped out in amazing detail, war strategies simulated through software and variables of battle are controlled to such an extent that the actual war simply becomes a logistical formality. In such an asymmetric war, the side that controls machine-filmed, amoral and objective images of a region is the one that conquers it. To see is to capture.

Farocki’s cool, composed essay films remind us of the treachery of images, sure, but also keep pointing us to their possibilities and their liberating power. These works move beyond analyzing our extremely visual, late capitalist culture through its advertising images alone and reveal the epochal shift that machine sight has brought in every sphere of existence. One of the greatest strengths of these films is their genuinely open-mindedness towards the rapid transformations that mark our post-ideological age. Though they certainly take a political position, they are not monolithic, leftist diatribes perceiving every change as a machination of the powerful that leaves no scope for resistance. Neither pessimistic nor triumphalist, Farocki’s films distinguish themselves with the untainted curiosity and the openness to change with which they attempt to make sense of the time we live in. The same could be said of Farocki.

(For The Hindu)

Chris Marker avec Monsieur Chat
 

“I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility.”

-         Sans Soleil (1983)

 

It is possible to build a case that a person called Chris Marker, who reportedly passed away two weeks ago in Paris, never existed; that the name is a mnemonic for an underground art collective, a projection of an auteurist film culture that tends to preserve the aura of a reclusive artist or a convenient label to denote audiovisual echoes from another world: a world of images, a world of appearances. Rarely photographed and even less frequently interviewed, Chris Marker, born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921, is something of an invisible man in the hallowed halls of world cinema. Generally associated with the Left Bank of the French New Wave, alongside high priests of cinematic modernism such as Alain Resnais, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Marguerite Duras, Marker has been credited as a pioneer of the Film Essay – a free-form genre marked by a strong authorial voice in which cinema most resembles non-fiction writing. Although it is true that he has produced some of the most groundbreaking, most challenging and most riveting film essays to date, it would be gross injustice to pigeonhole an artist who has not only engaged with a range of documentary forms like cinema vérité, agitprop, film diary, artist profile, travelogue and the home movie, but also wandered across media – literature, photography, video games, interactive multimedia and cinema – to explore his chief metaphysical and political concerns: time and space, history and memory.

‘Wandering’ was what Marker truly did. With the curiosity of a child, the fascination of a foreigner and the detachment of a drifter, he hopped media in search of the most eloquent articulation of that which haunted him the most. Unlike some of his New Wave peers, cinema, for him, was never an end in itself, but yet another medium – as powerful and as insufficient as any other – that could directly deal with ideas close to his heart. His films are incomplete in the sense they are not predetermined theses disbursing answers, but intellectual terminals where trains of thought depart from. There is a sense of mystery and rediscovery that these films impart to everyday experience, as though prompting us to look at the world anew, that could have been conceived only by a bonafide outsider, a person who does not belong anywhere but everywhere. A perennial globetrotter, an aesthetic voyager and an escape artist par excellence, Marker, as it were, never belonged to a single place or time. Such an elusive yet enchanting perspective is what informs the central theme of his most renowned work: the science fiction short La Jetée (1962), the tragedy of a man simultaneously stuck and unstuck in time.

Part a playful tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), part a serious study about the nature of cinema, La Jetée is composed entirely of still photographs. In the film, a man possessed by the image of a woman he saw in his childhood – now long dead – goes back in time to meet her, with full knowledge that he will lose her again. Marker’s spellbinding film literalizes the “double death” that haunts every photograph and which Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag would expound on decades later: the realization that a person in a photograph one is looking at is already dead and will be dead in some time after the photograph was taken, the dread that Eduardo Cadava called “memories of a mourning yet to come”. It realizes that the photographic image has neither a history nor a future and that it is the actuating force of cinema that provides it with both. The idea of such a malleability of memory and history – personal and collective – and an obsession with the enigmas of space and time motivates another of Marker’s hypnotic films: the sprawling, shape-shifting Sans Soleil (1983).

A masterwork of the free-associative essay form, Sans Soleil endlessly tosses one idea against another, examining the way we restructure personal and collective memory and construct our identity – as an individual and as a society. The film is riddled with questions relating to the differences in human experience that a geographical and temporal dislocation brings. Why is it that one is alive here and now? What if one was born in a different place or in a different time? In one way or other, these concerns have pervaded nearly his entire filmography starting from the extremely witty, self-reflexive film diary Letters from Siberia (1957). Through the decades, Marker has proven himself to be a relentless chronicler and examiner of the visual media that surround and shape us. His films have probed, in various forms and to various degrees, the deepest tissues that connect us subconsciously to the moving images of cinema. And it is only befitting that we thank him, in true Markerian spirit, for all his discoveries we are yet to make.

 

(Originally published in The Hindu)

Interview: Girish Kasaravalli

[The following is an interview of Girish Kasaravalli I did for the latest issue of Projectorhead magazine. Talking in person to the director whose films I deeply admire was a rather revelatory experience in that it not only cleared me of many misconceptions about these works, but also exposed interesting differences between how a filmmaker conceives his films and how a viewer receives them. Heartfelt thanks to founders/editors Gautam and Anuj for giving me this opportunity]

 

Your films are rife with rituals, ceremonies and legitimization games. This is perhaps most apparent in Ghatashraddha (1979), your debut feature. What interested you in dealing with such conservative constructs?

Although they are present in the later films as well, rituals and ceremonies are central only to Ghatashraddha. I wouldn’t say I am interested in rituals or castes as such. I liked the scenario of Ghatashraddha, which is about this pair of people Yamunakka and Nani who are marginalized and outcast by this religious institution. She is a young woman who naturally feels the need for male companionship. Nani, otherwise rather sharp, finds it difficult to learn these scriptures. Both of them are ridiculed and outcast by the establishment.

Your direction of Meena Kuttappa in the film is highly stylized. It is not exaggerated, but it is not natural either. It is almost Bressonian. This kind of acting is not found elsewhere in your filmography.

Yes, we were familiar with Bresson’s cinema that time and Meena’s performance is similarly very stylized. It was a de-dramatization gesture. Much of our acting assumes that emotions are to be expressed. I wanted the emotions to be expressed not through the acting but the events of the story. Throughout the film, Yamunakka stays in a single register of suffering. Nani, on the other hand, undergoes a marked change. He realizes that he has to help Yamunakka. While he cannot do a whole lot, he does what his strength and age allows him to. That is why, his performance, along with other characters, is more naturalistic. Even the lead performance in Thayi Saheba (1997) is stylized the same way.

 

(Full interview at Projectorhead)

Mani Kaul
 

An enormous void has been created in world cinema landscape with the passing of Mani Kaul, one of the greatest Indian filmmakers. The least we could do is to cherish his works, spread the word and discuss about them and keep his grand legacy alive.

Here are some writings by and interviews of Mani Kaul. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped bring these pieces on to the internet.

 

Writings

Interviews

— Mysskin’s cinema is physical. The fight scenes in his films occupy the extreme ends of a spectrum. They are either divided into the simplest of images – where the cause and effect of an action occupy different shots and we rarely see two bodies in interaction – or are presented in their entirely, prioritizing spatial continuity over fragmentation and highlighting corporeality of an action over its meaning. The frames are chopped; characters’ heads cut off. In his world of action, hands and feet are all that matter. (Severing body parts is not an unusual act in this universe). People don’t have time for patient phone calls. They keep running, falling and scuffling. So does the camera, which crouches when they crouch, which lurches when they lurch, which sits back when they sit and which trembles from afar when they do. Mysskin is impatient with two shots and his restless, gently swaying camera converts these expository moments into a survey of the set, a documentation of an ensemble performance.

— These films are tightly plotted, very convoluted affairs; their solution always at an arm’s length. Instead of the clutter clearing up, it keeps growing knottier and knottier until cutting through is the only way out. These resolutions, themselves, come across as cathartic experiences. Characters barely know the trajectories of others and how they interfere with their own. Like mice in a maze, they keep holding on to their version of truth until they get the view from above. It is this partial concealment/ignorance of information through which the movies attain tragic proportions. Mysskin’s men make grave choices and often the wrong one. They try to vindicate themselves, only to hurt themselves over and over and descend deeper into guilt that is predicated on an equivalence that recognizes one’s own condition in another. They suffer, and come out as better men. Their redemption is possible because they suffer. Mysskin’s pictures, likewise, are at their best when under generic constraints. Mysskin is at his most liberated when tethered.

— The men and women in these films find themselves in similar situations time and time again.  Despite all their actions and choices, they seem to come back to where they started from. It is of little surprise that much of the acting in these movies consists of repeated gestures and words. Be it pacing up and down a hall, where we see them oscillating about like a human pendulum, or fighting a gang of armed men, each of whom comes forward individually – like ascending notes in a motif – for a showdown, invoking comparison to both the martial arts and dance choreography. Likewise, we see them getting stuck in language loops – repeated words and phrases – until they attain a rhythm that reveals more than the words themselves do. This inclination for repetition informs Mysskin’s aesthetic as well, with some loopy, shrill, Bernard Herrmann-esque score (at least one of his lead men recalls Scottie Ferguson) and a number of repeating compositions.

— Mysskin is one of the few filmmakers in the country who can take melodrama head on without falling back. He is not a minimalist trying to sap out the excess from it, but a director working on a grand canvas, blowing up the form. Much like John Ford, with whom he shares an affinity for the sky and the heroes who adorn it, Mysskin uses music to enrich the gravity of a situation than substituting for it, to multiply emotions rather than adding them; instinctive rather than instructive, expressionistic rather than expressive. Mysskin earns his violins. At times, the deployment is incongruous (and prescient) with what we are seeing, but, in retrospect, is overwhelming. Like Ford, he has this uncanny ability to elevate commonplace gestures and glances to mythical levels. A Western by Mysskin wouldn’t really be a surprise, given how his own filmmaking instincts and themes derive from Westerns, by way of Samurai movies: codes of honor, responsibility towards one’s men.

— Although God is never quite absent from the films’ worlds, His silence becomes too threatening. There is a myriad of God’s eye compositions that seem to witness all sorts of activities with equanimity, without judgment. It is perhaps the worlds themselves that have fallen and it is probably up to the people who live in it to sort it all out. Mysskin’s camera that keeps descending from the sky onto the ground, then, signals a universe where man has to take up the responsibility of God, in His silence. This goes well along with Mysskin’s deep-rooted distrust of institutionalized justice and his muddled yet ultimately silly plea for vigilantism. (He is much more comfortable and intriguing when dealing with metaphysical ideas than sociopolitical particulars). The men in his films never seem to be able to fit into rigid establishments and find law and justice to be concepts often diverging from each other.

 

(Filmography: Chithiram Pesuthadi (2006), Anjathey (2008), Nandhalala (2010), Yuddham Sei (2011))

Mani Kaul

Mani Kaul 
(1944-2011)

Mani Kaul is undoubtedly the Indian filmmaker who, along with Kumar Shahani, has succeeded in radically overhauling the relationship of image to form, of speech to narrative, with the objective of creating a ‘purely cinematic object’ that is above all visual and formal. He was born Rabindranath Kaul in Jodhpur in Rajasthan in 1942 into a family hailing from Kashmir. His uncle was the well-known actor-director Mahesh Kaul. Mani joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune initially as an acting student but then switched over to the direction course at the institute. He graduated from the FTII in 1966. Mani’s first film Uski Roti (1969) was one of the key films of the ‘New Indian Cinema’ or the Indian New Wave. The film created shock waves when it was released as viewers did not know what quite to make of it due to its complete departure from all Indian Cinema earlier in terms of technique, form and narrative. The film is ‘adapted’ from a short story by renowned Hindi author Mohan Rakesh and is widely regarded as the first formal experiment in Indian Cinema. While the original story used conventional stereotypes for its characters and situations, the film creates an internal yet distanced kind of feel reminiscent of the the great French Filmmaker, Robert Bresson. The film was financed by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) responsible for initiating the New Indian Cinema with Bhuvan Shome (1969) and Uski Roti. It was violently attacked in the popular press for dispensing with standard cinematic norms and equally defended by India’s aesthetically sensitive intelligentsia. [Image & Bio Courtesy: Mubi]

 

I guess Mani Kaul could be called, with qualifications of course, the invisible man of Indian cinema. The home audience might find his films too ‘European’, too alien, and too cryptic, and might prefer instead the realist-humanist works of an artist like Ray. Foreign viewers, on the other hand, might complain that they are too culturally-rooted, too alien and too cryptic, and instead opt for a ‘universal’ filmmaker like Ray. Indeed, neither Kaul nor his pictures make any claim to ‘universality’. They are, undoubtedly, steeped in Indian classical art forms like how the Nouvelle Vague films were, with respect to the European classical tradition. Many of these films are adapted from literary works in Hindi, have a profound relationship with Hindustani music and exhibit an influence of representational forms from the country. In fact, his cinema, if not much else, is about these very forms, both in terms of subject matter and their construction. These films, to varying degrees, are literature (The Cloud Door), painting (Duvidha), architecture (Satah Se Uthata Aadmi), poetry (Siddheshwari) and music (Dhrupad). Right from his early documentary Forms and Design (1968), which sets up an opposition between functional forms of industrial age and decorative ones from Indian tradition, Kaul makes it, more or less, apparent that is he is interested in the possibilities of a form itself more than the question if it can convey a preconceived thesis. Like Godard, Kaul starts with the image and works his way into the text, if any.

Perhaps it is classical music, and specific strains of it, that exhibits strongest affinity with Kaul’s cinema. The director has mentioned that the trait that attracts him to it the most is that there are elements that just don’t fit into a system, notes that slip away and could find themselves elsewhere in the composition, Similarly, Kaul, admittedly, edits his films like composing music, moving a shot along the timeline, beyond logic, meaning or chronology, till it finds its right place, in terms of mood, rhythm or whatever parameter the director has in mind. (“And I know that when the shot finds its place, it has a quality of holding you. The position is its meaning”). He has, time and again, spoken elaborately on the systematization of fine art by European Renaissance and the need to find out alternate modes of expression free from its constraints. Convergence, be it in the perspective compositions of painting, the three-act structure of literature, or the climaxing of motifs in music, has always been an area of concern and investigation for him. (He admires Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) for its insistence on spending a quarter hour fretting about a pair of shoes, at the expense of plot). Consequently, fragmentation becomes the central organizing principle of his aesthetic. Like Robert Bresson, one of his greatest influences, Kaul prefers filming parts of the body – hands, feet and head – and positions his actors such that they are facing away from the camera or are in profile, thereby disregarding the convention that the face is the centre of one’s body. (Kaul’s sketches, in that sense, are direct antithesis to the portraits of Renaissance). Accordingly, because the face is tied to the notion of a unique identity, Kaul’s actors are stripped off all natural expression and behaviour and de-identified. Many of his shots are ‘flat’, without any depth cues or perspectival lines. (He traces this to ‘perspectiveless’ Mughal miniature paintings and cites Cézanne as another major influence). None of the characters are Enlightenment heroes having a firm hold on their world. The narratives are decentered and distributed across multiple perspectives.

This resistance to convergence principles of Renaissance has also led him to radically reformulate his relationship to the spaces he films. He believes that filmic and social spaces have been conventionally divided into ‘the sacred’ – the perfect realization of an ideal, carefully framed and chiseled, with all the undesired elements out – and ‘the profane’ – accidental intrusions, random fluctuations and irreligious interruptions; that the moment a filmmaker looks through the viewfinder, he ‘appropriates’ the hitherto ‘neutral’ space to compose based a set of principles, polishes it and turns it into a ‘sacred’ space. Kaul, on the other hand, has increasingly been resistant to ‘perfecting’ an image or space, instead treating space as something neutral and unclassifiable in itself and concentrating on the tone, feeling and emotion of a shot. (This is also what Godard does in his latest work, where spaces and images of all kind are given equal importance). In his later films, he has asked his cameraman not to look through the viewfinder while filming. (This does not mean that one shoots blindly. The director has elaborated in his writings on how this could be practically implemented. “What needs to be determined by the director and the cameraman is the act of making the shot: attention being that aspect of time that deeply colours the emergent feeling in a shot”). He has, admittedly, been open to intrusions and one can see stray elements, like cat mews appearing unexpectedly, in some of his shots. Likewise, none of his “stories” converge, or even have a linear progression, and, in fact, keep diffusing and opening up new possibilities.

 

[There are numerous features not covered in this post. The entries will be added if and when I see those missing films. All short films are omitted here.]

 

Uski Roti (A Day’s Bread, 1969)

Uski RotiMade when he was 25, Mani Kaul’s first feature Uski Roti (1969) is what one might call a poetic film about waiting. Kaul takes a simple premise for the film – a woman who goes to the highway everyday to give lunch to her husband, whom she,  oddly enough, addresses using his full name – and strips it down to its skeleton, diverting our attention from what is represented to how it is represented. (Kaul likens this process to a painter emphasizing his brush strokes). Bresson’s influence is palpable in many aspects of filmmaking here: the delayed editing of shots that parenthesizes action, the de-dramatization of scenario, the atonal, unaccented line delivery by actors without forced expressions, the emphasis on objects rather than concepts, the numerous shots of hands and faces that have a grace of their own and, of course, the central, suffering woman. (There is even a direct homage to Pickpocket (1959)). Additionally, Kaul’s own training in short documentaries seems to have made its mark here, given how keen the film is on documenting purely physical activities such kneading dough, which becomes the central gesture. (This would be elaborated upon in the short A Historical Sketch Of Indian Women (1975)). Utilizing plethora of Ghatak-influenced wide angle shots, in high-contrast monochrome (if only the film had used European film stock, Pedro Costa would applaud), a hyperreal sound mix and a highly idiosyncratic grammar (horizontal asymmetry, characters facing away from camera, no reaction shots), Kaul makes an arresting if not totally underivative debut.

Duvidha (In Two Minds, 1973)

DuvidhaKaul’s most acclaimed film Duvidha (1973) opens with a rather flat, Godardian image of a woman in a red saree standing in front of a white wall, staring determinedly into the camera, as high-pitched Rajasthani ethnic vocals grace the audio. Like the frozen image of Truffaut’s juvenile delinquent, it suggests a predicament addressed to the audience. Based a folk tale, Duvidha speaks of a love that is beyond time and space. The presence of the ghost, which falls in love with the new bride, is not an exotic delicacy served to us but a given. And so is the ‘story’, which is read out verbatim to us by the narrator, freeing the film from the burden of storytelling, so to speak, instead allowing it to experiment with the imagery. Employing a number of photographs, freeze frames, jump cuts and replays, which illustrate the film’s central notion of temporal and geographical dislocation (and save on the budget) and manipulating time like an accordion player, Kaul weaves a narrative where the past, the present and the future are always in conversation. (The ghost is simply referred to as ‘Bhoot’ (ghost), which is, of course, the word for ‘past’ as well). The predicament of the title, then, involves a choice between the spiritual and the material, the bride’s past and future, her childhood and adulthood, her freedom and honour and her love and security. Bewitchingly shot like a Dovzhenko film (and composed like Cézanne‘s still lifes), and impressively designed, with a simple yet striking interplay of red and white, Duvidha builds on both Kaul’s feminist leanings and highly personalized aesthetic.

Satah Se Uthata Aadmi (Arising From The Surface, 1980)

Satah Se Uthata AadmiSatah Se Uthata Aadmi (1980) begins with a shot of a serene lakeside landscape being abruptly shut off from view by a closing window, following which camera gradually withdraws deeper into the eerily empty rooms of a dilapidating house where the central character of the film – a poet – resides. This notion of the artist being far removed from reality, and retreating further into himself, resonates throughout the film. Based on the deeply personal texts of Gajanan Mukthibodh, Satah Se Uthata Aadmi presents a world where the revolution has failed, idealism has died out in the name of practicality and the role of intellectuals and artists has been vehemently questioned. Rekindling the question of theory versus practice, the film attempts to examine if residing is certain social frameworks to make a living amounts to a sellout of oneself. (Like Godard-Truffaut, Ghatak-Ray, does Kaul have anyone in mind?). This fragmented, post-socialist state of society that the film depicts – through its vignettes of urban Indian individuals – is reflected in the Malick-like disunited voiceover which spans three characters and which conversely, unites the narrative together. A remarkably sustained tone poem, with brooding surreal passages (including a hypnotic documentary sequence inside a factory and an unabashedly allegorical finale) and minor experiments (sections from Muktibodh’s texts displayed on screen), reminiscent of Godard’s work of the 90s, rife with strong verticals and perspective compositions (which is odd, given Kaul’s resistance to it), Satah Se Uthata Aadmi is both Kaul’s most stringent and most affecting work.

Dhrupad (1982)

DhrupadDhrupad (1982) finds Kaul studying the eponymous classical music form, specifically the Dagarvani variation of it practiced by the Dagar family, with whom the director has close associations with. Apparently, the music the film examines is one without any form of notation since, reportedly, many of the tones don’t fit into existing notational systems and the transmission of tradition is done purely orally. (The vocal performances that we hear exhibit such malleability of human voice that one is convinced that no instrument can aspire to emulate its timbre). This trait of not conforming to the systematized models of Renaissance is of special interest to Kaul, who has long been aware of the need to discover non-reductive, discursive modes of expression. Likewise, Dhrupad, like many of the director’s pictures, eludes categorization or compartmentalization. Part historical study, part religious documentation of performances, part experiment with cinematic time (the sublime shot that spans a sunrise invokes contemporary ‘landscape filmmakers’ like Benning) and part exercise in thematically conglomerating classical Indian art forms – music, sculpture, architecture, painting and cinema – the self-referential film gives a vivid picture of what makes Dhrupad so striking, with its numerous mise en abymes and fractals. Like in the films of Resnais, with whom Kaul shares an affinity for ‘fragmentation’, the camera glides through the Mughal style corridors and courtyards, in which the veteran artistes of the Dagar family perform and teach – while the soundtrack takes off on its own – evoking a sense of history that is living and breathing.

Mati Manas (The Mind Of Clay, 1985)

Mati ManasCommissioned by NFDC and the handicrafts division of Ministry of Textiles, Mani Kaul’s Mati Manas centers on potters and terra cotta artisans located in and around Rajasthan and unfolds as a fictionalized version of Kaul’s journey into the region as an outsider and a documentary filmmaker. We have documentary passages that elaborately detail the art and business of terra cotta making and the way of life that revolves around it interspersed with sections where we see the in-movie documentary crew shuttling between museums showcasing earthenware from the Indus Valley civilization, excavation sites and various potter villages while narrating to us the various myths, legends and folk tales of the region that reveal how mud/earth has become, for these artisans, an element inextricable from imagination and practice and has gone on to develop maternal associations with its capacity to nurture, shelter and produce. Suffused with Cezanne-like still life and images of potters at work, especially the weary, skillful hands that lovingly, spontaneously shape raw earth into little, wondrous artifacts, Mati Manas comes across as a tribute to the dignity and grace of human labour. Perhaps more importantly, Kaul’s return-to-zero film unveils a society where people’s relationship to art is still habitual and tactile, a pre-reflective, non-reductive, phenomenological way of experiencing art that stands in opposition to modern, appropriative, optical approaches – a split that is reflected in the chasm between how ancient pottery is exhibited in museums and sketched in textbooks as icons of heritage and triumph of archaeology and how it might have been perceived by people of its time.

Siddheshwari (1989)

SiddheshwariWith Siddheshwari (1989), Kaul turns the typical artist-profile film (produced by Films Division) on its head. Not only does it eschew straightforward documentation of the titular singer’s artistry, but it almost completely does away with basic biographical details to arrive at something more exhilarating and revelatory. Instead of presenting music, the film presents the idea and experience of music. A bona fide avant-garde feature that amalgamates multiple timelines, geographies, realities and narrative modes, Siddheshwari brings together various art forms like literature (the chapterized film opens with a table of contents!), music (shifts in ragas, reflected in the filmmaking with hue and rhythm changes) and theatre (both in its production design and its emphasis on role-playing throughout). The camera is perpetually moving – dollies and cranes galore – as if reading an ancient scroll and acts like a force of time that moves Siddheshwari Devi through landscapes and times. The soundtrack, similarly, is a dense network of speech, whispers, vocal and instrumental music ad recited poetry. Siddheswari Devi is portrayed by a number of women, including some who enact her biography, some who depict her sensorial experiences and Devi herself. (This is only one of the reasons I’m reminded of Hou’s The Puppetmaster (1994)). One of them is Mita Vasisht, whom we see at an archive, at the end, watching tapes of Devi singing, possibly to prepare herself for the role. Like The Taste of Cherry (1997), fiction and reality bid adieu, with Kaul restoring things back to their original places, as though returning what he borrowed to create his greatest work.

Nazar (The Gaze, 1989)

NazarAdapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story, Nazar (1989) bears natural resemblance to Robert Bresson’s shining adaptation of the same, A Gentle Creature (1969) in its characteristically stylized direction of actors and the sacrificing drama for rhythm, mood and an intensity of observation. Kaul replaces the generally bright interiors of Bresson’s version of the couple’s high-rise housing, which cordons them off from the rest of the world and which is emphasized continuously in the film, with a low-lit (barely any artificial light) semi-dungeon marked dominated by black-blue and brown shades, suggestive of the moral malaise that marks both the psyche of the male character and the space the pair lives in. The ever-wandering camera hovers over characters who appear to be stationed in space – with barely any movement – as if frozen in time. Kaul’s ultra-minimal chamber drama, too, starts off with the suicide of a woman (Kaul’s daughter Shambhavi, an avant-garde filmmaker herself), although it is only alluded to by her husband (noted director Shekhar Kapur), who tries to recollect to us what might have moved her to commit this act. Kapur’s stream-of-consciousness delivery of lines is exceptionally fragmented, as if he’s trying to wrestle information from deep recesses of ‘actual and ’‘convenient’ memories. This narrative within the narrative is the man’s way of vindicating himself; of blinding himself to the fact that ‘ownership’ is what that mattered to him all along and that he is, like the antiques that he sells, a man stuck in time.

Naukar Ki Kameez (The Servant’s Shirt, 1999)

Naukar Ki KameezNaukar Ki Kameez (1999), as it appears, is a ‘conventional’ narrative film, by the director’s standards, with that generally-revered ‘naturalistic’ acting and speech, its relatively generous use of musical score and a general willingness to present a string of events, if not a plot. However, it is also one of Kaul’s most experimental features (Kaul couldn’t ideally be classified as an experimental filmmaker) and employs a fragmented narrative structure (which keeps spreading out to new directions) with constant chronological jumps back and forth, an absurd, magic realist tone (which reveals a tenderness towards his characters and his geography) and a potpourri of filmmaking modes (including canned laughter of sitcoms and internal monologues of low-end TV dramas). Set at the fag end of the 60s, Naukar Ki Kameez, which centers on a lower-middle class clerk, Santu, in a government office, and his wife, for most part, is a simple metaphorical tale of upward class mobility and its psychological and social impediments. Santu is a bundle of contradictions; he is conscious of class divisions and the need for revolution and yet harbours hope for social-climbing, he recognizes the need to respect the other, yet casually oppresses his wife, whom he genuinely loves as well. Like Aravindan’s Oridathu (1986), it gives us a nation with an identity crisis: one caught between extreme Westernization and dreams of a revolution – between tradition and modernity – posing a question to itself: To wear or to tear?

Een Aaps Regenjas (A Monkey’s Raincoat, 2005)

A Monkey's RaincoatMore fascinating than the fact that A Monkey’s Raincoat (2005) revitalizes the age-old question of purpose of art and its relationship to the real world is that low-end handheld DV, which the film is shot on, helps put nearly all of Kaul’s theoretical principles and inclinations into practice: the idea of not looking through the viewfinder while shooting, the rejection of the dichotomy between “sacred” and “profane” spaces, the notion of camera as an extension of one’s body and movement and a deep-seated interest in the experience of filming over filming itself. Adopting a loose, instinctive and continuous mode of shooting, Kaul inquisitively records an assortment of young painters at work at two places – Biennale, Venice and at their residency in Amsterdam, Netherlands – often interacting with them as he works. We see that Amsterdam is something of a dream destination for budding artists, a melting pot of cultures, where they can at least hope to find an audience. Though never taking potshots at art or its reception, Kaul’s film gently mocks an art scene where artists seem to be fond of ‘playing’ artists, with a set of personalized eccentricities and self-imposed clichés. As he samples their creations, he wonders in the voiceover if there is any purpose to art at all, given that it has been able to solve not one of the world’s problems. Kaul realizes that the question is moot and questions if art for humans is what a raincoat if for monkey: it might not stop the rain but at least it helps you to recognize it and shield yourself from it.

Girish Kasaravalli

Girish Kasaravalli 
(1950-)

Girish Kasaravalli was born in Kesalur, a village in the Tirthahalli taluk in Shimoga district in 1950 to Ganesh Rao and Lakshmi Devi. He had his primary education in Kesalur and middle school education in Kammaradi. Hailing from a family of book lovers, he was initiated to reading good books from a young age by his father. His father was also a patron of Yakshagana, a folk system of dance, native to Karnataka. All this formed a basis for a life rich with creative aspirations. He was also attracted to the touring talkies which visited his village once in a while to screen popular Kannada films. This was his first exposure to the world of Cinema. Another relative who supported his love for creative arts was his maternal uncle K.V.Subbanna, a Magsaysay award winner who founded Neenasam, a critically acclaimed and popular drama company. After completing his high school and college education in Shimoga, he enrolled for the B.Pharma course in the College of Pharmacy, Manipal. The college was a commonplace for many cultural activities and kept Girish Kasaravalli’s creative interests alive. After completing his degree, he went to Hyderabad for training. But due to his pre occupations in Cinema and art, he found it difficult to manage his profession and interest together. He decided to quit the career in Pharmacy and join the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. A gold medalist from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Girish Kasaravalli started his career in films with Ghatashraddha (1977), over the next 30 years he directed eleven films and a tele serial.The Film he made to fulfill his Diploma “AVASHESH” was awarded the Best Student Film. Avashesh also won the President’s Silver Lotus award for the Best Short Film of that year [Bio Courtesy: Wikipedia, Image Courtesy: ProKerala]

 

Girish Kasaravalli’s films are full of rituals, ceremonies, legitimization games, legal procedures and codes of communication and social conduct. These narratives are all structured around notions of inclusion and exclusion, of inclusiveness and exclusivity. They are all about who is in a particular game and who is not. Even though Kasaravalli’s films are about rituals, the films, themselves, are never rituals. Part of what makes Kasaravalli’s cinema so rich is the fact that, unlike many of his contemporaries, the director hasn’t allowed his world view to stagnate, his concerns to become characteristic or his explorations to become answers. Even though they have been present in one form or another throughout his filmography, the key question that Kasaravalli’s films have put emphasis on has moved from that of socio-religious institutions and their laws, through that of authorization of those laws by those whom it applies to, to that of justice and its many conflicting definitions that seek to pin down its meaning, all the while having at their focal points the effects that these questions have on the social standing of women. Let’s make no mistake; his films – like many works of ‘Parallel Cinema’ – have always been about with the status of women in a conservative setup. What sets these films apart is, however, the fact that they choose to venture beyond the miserablism that the scenario offers (and which many filmmakers wallow in) and probe what makes a setup conservative in the first place. For every mention of Kasaravalli the humanist, there is Kasaravalli the analyst beneath, for every instance of Kasaravalli the metaphysician, there is Kasaravalli the sociologist operating alongside and for every cry of Kasaravalli the universal, there’s Kasaravalli the native working on historicized junctures.

Despite sharing a woman-behind-bars aesthetic highly typical of Parallel Cinema – locale shooting with an affinity for the horizon and landscapes at dawn and dusk, low-light static compositions (often through doorways) and continuity editing that indicate a respect towards the written word, pans and tilts that unveil details gradually, an inclination towards restrained low-key classical score (by his regular, the highly talented Isaac Thomas Kottukapally) and naturalist sound design complementing re-recorded speech – there are a few directorial choices – the scroll-like horizontal tracking shots that are present right from his experimental, Tarkovsky-esque diploma film Avasesh (1975), the temporalizing intertitles and the major ellipses that bypass drama – which have revealed themselves as stark deviations from the movement’s aesthetic. There are as many shots of freewheeling corporeality in Kasaravalli’s films as there are modernist shots carrying the burden of meaning, as many moments that rebel against the narrative as there are moments that are at its service. And that is indeed a rare sight to see in Parallel Cinema.

 

[The usual caveat: Lots of films missing here. Notes will be added once I see them]

 
Ghatashraddha (The Ritual, 1979)

GhatashraddhaThe director’s debut feature, The Ritual, couldn’t have more aptly titled given that every subsequent Kasaravalli film could be named the same. Set in a Brahmin (priest class) settlement where sacred hymns are taught by male teachers and learnt by rote by male children, Ghatashraddha delves into a system of social legitimation that is built on suppressing differences, deviances and dissent. (Having a homosexual teenager in the school is provocative even today). Kasaravalli portrays these rituals – religious and social – in high detail that they seem to almost possess a power beyond the people who perform them. The act of teaching and reciting these very hymns (some of which are specifically written for men) proves to be an authorization procedure for the perpetuation of patriarchy and of maintaining a closed circle of legislative and judicial power. Both the young kid Nani (Ajith Kumar), who isn’t able to learn these chants, and the young woman Yamuna (the beautiful Meena Kuttappa), who gets pregnant out of wedlock, are deemed outcasts. Ghatashraddha pays out like a tragedy in which every attempt to break out of a rigid system of rules is put down and all discursive entities that could undermine the integrity of the system are absorbed into the mainstream. Kasaravalli uses his actors remarkably – almost in a Bressonian manner – pruning down superfluous elements of performance and expression and reducing the tragic presence of Yamuna to an aggregate of glances and stares, and his command on his images is equally noteworthy, with sharp, beautiful monochrome photography.

Mane (House, 1991)

ManePossibly the most unusual Kasaravalli picture and certainly my favorite by the director, Mane (also dubbed in Hindi as Ek Ghar) is a Kafkaesque tale about a young couple (Naseeruddin Shah and Deepti Naval) that moves to the city from a village with the hope of finding privacy and freedom, which are unavailable in the joint family system. For all its narrative excursions, in a sense, Mane is merely about the breakup of a marriage in which the Rossellinian couple, unable to confront each other directly amidst the loneliness of the city, externalizes their troubles – his powerlessness, her desire for freedom and their childlessness – and shifts blame on situations beyond their control in order to act victims. Kasaravalli works wonder with film and sound here, using them to denote the impending break down. (One stunning shot uses the neon lights of the neighbourhood to literally break apart the frame). A critique on urban spaces that suffocate more than they promise privacy, Mane unfolds like a sociological update on Rear Window (1954), in which personal anxieties and fears are displaced onto the surroundings and, specifically, onto a lower social class. In that sense, Mane connects all the way to the director’s latest work in the manner in which it raises questions about the visibility of the class structure and the seeming imperceptibility of the consequences of acts of one class on the other. Mane is full of such encroachments of freedom by other competing notions of freedom – between classes, between houses and between spouses.

Thai Saheba (1997)

Thayi SahebaThai Saheba, I think, is best understood as a transitional film because it is in this film that Kasaravalli tries to streamline most of the diverging concerns of his previous features into a sustained reflection on justice – a topic that he would keep refining in his subsequent three works. Shot mostly indoors with the production design dominated by deep red and brown colours, the film is reminiscent of similarly-themed films of the same decade by Hou and Zhang, especially in the way the women orbit the largely unseen patriarch of the house and how the personal becomes inseperably entagled with the political. Kasaravalli, interestingly, sets his story in pre-independence India in an attempt, however unsure, to make a positive intervention into history and open it up for analysis. More precisely, the period is the 1940s when the independence struggle against the British Empire was at its peak. The leader of the house is a Gandhian fighting earnestly for independence while he keeps ignoring his wife (one among three!), who finds companionship in her adopted son, who, in turn, falls in love with his step sister. The film is rife with such complex familial relationships and forbidding codes of conduct, through which questions regarding inheritance and birth right are broached. (There’s a narrative thread regarding perfumes that Kasaravalli uses as shorthand for feudal legacy). Like the previous picture, Thai Saheba keeps pitting one idea of freedom and justice with other. However, there’s also the feeling that the film might be treating history as a closed book, suggesting that we are living at more liberal times. The corrective would arrive three films later.

Dweepa (The Island, 2003)

DweepaDweepa is a quantum leap of sorts for Kasaravalli. For one, the scenario takes a gigantic jump from pre-independence India to post-globalization India (the jump is highly ironic since the politico-historic situation doesn’t differ as much as one expects it to): to a time when huge construction projects are undertaken at the cost of the livelihood of thousands of indigenous people. Possibly the most keenly observed of all the director’s films, Dweepa finds Kasaravalli shifting his focus from institutions and their laws towards the legitimization of those very laws, to the many internal contradictions a statement of justice has to suppress to create a stable meaning. The film almost plays out reverse-dialectically – like a chain of nuclear fissions – breaking down one stable narrative of justice into smaller narratives each counterpointing the other. The island of the title, then, not only refers to the geography of the story or to the situation that the priest family – father, son and daughter-in-law and the young outsider – finds itself in, but also to this impossibility of consensus and to the narratives of minorities being abandoned in favour of those of existing technocratic and paternal institutions. (The story’s development, in a way, parallels the trajectory of critical discourses in the past few decades, in the undermining of totalizing theories by identity groups). Kasaravalli can’t propose a solution (is there one?), but the response he suggests – of perpetual resistance – is borne out of a deep respect for his subjects.

Haseena (2004)

HaseenaHaseena begins with a bruised, middle-aged woman (Tara) sitting determinedly in front of a mosque before cutting – painfully – to an older, beautiful version of her. Haseena has all the trappings of a “woman’s picture” – a poor lower-class woman, with many kids and a abusive, drunkard husband who beats her up, struggling to make a living in a man’s world – and, to an extent, it is. But instead of converting the scenario into a woe-of-the-week saga and wallowing in self-pity and condescension that almost seems to be the natural reaction from many filmmakers, Kasaravalli, respecting the dignity of himself and his subject, moves beyond superficial humanism to embark on an examination of the law, justice and the crossroads between them. That the story is set in an Islamic community, where laws and rules are more localized and, hence, the idea of justice could be more accommodative, helps illustrate the dynamics of legislation and legitimization with higher transparency. Absorbing a number of uncharacteristic directorial choices, strangely enough, from contemporary Iranian cinema, where too characters retain their self-esteem, specifically in its use of colour and music (Kottukapally’s high-scale stringed compositions, well, strike a chord for those familiar with Majidi’s cinema, for instance) and it’s magic realist finale, Kasaravalli experiments with his new found freedom of form and the confidence of approach that the previous, seminal feature seems to have fortified.

Naayi Neralu (In The Shadow Of The Dog, 2006)

Naayi NeraluNaayi Neralu is the exact kind of movie that Kasaravalli’s filmography was working towards all along. Like Thayi Saheba, this one is also set in a pre-independence era, but instead of treating issues from at a distance and institutions monolithically, Kasaravalli treats them like how a present-day sociologist would talk about present-day problems. Kasaravalli’s intervention into history exemplifies postmodernism as a responsible critical approach (and not as “anything goes” complacency that the term has become a mnemonic for) in the way it keeps revealing the individual not as a rational, integral consciousness trapped inside institutions and their oppressive rules but as a de-centered subject sitting at the intersection of multiple Symbolic orders with much more authority than a modernist illustration would allow for. The complex script (many share writing credits) first establishes, like Ghatashraddha, a widow Venku (Pavitra Lokesh) in a fixed, conservative milieu before introducing a disturbance into the system in the form of a young man who claims to be her husband, reincarnated. The society in question authorizes the intrusion and this, ironically, promises escape for Venku, who crosses over into the new legal contour. After certain unforeseen incidents, the society realizes the radicalism of its own decision and revokes back the patent, leaving Venku outside all social circles. An incisive portrait of law as a sum of countersigning gestures and justice as something more individualized, like a signature, Naayi Neralu presents Kasaravalli’s social study at its most refined.

Gulabi Talkies (2008)

Gulabi TalkiesSet in a coastal town in Karnataka where fishing is the major source of livelihood and at a time when the country was engaged in the Kargil war, Gulabi Talkies, along with the next film, marks another major transitional period – if not a minor fall from the precision of Naayi Neralu, which I think is the case – for Kasaravalli. If, in the previous pictures, the director and the writers attempted to look at the bigger picture – at the narrative that confronts and governs other narratives –they suggest here that one might not be able to get a bigger picture at all. There are a hundred things that are going on in Gulabi Talkies that attempt to tear the film’s focus apart. The first of two major threads involves a movie-loving middle-aged Muslim midwife (Umashree) who is gifted a television set with satellite connection and the second one deals with a group of Visconti-like fishermen who are enraged by the government’s decision to grant permission to a local Muslim bigwig to fish in the same zone as them. Gulabi Talkies investigates how international events and decisions trickle down – step by step – into every day life and acquire a completely different flavour that conceals knowledge of the actuating force. The war against Pakistan (itself a consequence) translates to communal violence within the country, which translates to gang wars among fishermen and which, in turn, bear upon Gulabi’s status as the cynosure of the local housewives. Perhaps, this is why the film’s most telling image is that of a satellite dish on the beach facing the sea: Images from a world beyond having catastrophic effects elsewhere.

Kanasembo Kudureyaneri (Riding The Stallion Of A Dream, 2010)

Kanasembo KudureyaneriKanasembo Kudureyaneri begins quite flashily, as though advertising its own script, with the quip by Godard that a film needn’t have a beginning, middle and an end in the same order. But then, instead of using the hyperlink structure of the script to pull off one emotional coup after another, Kasaravalli and co. use it to emphasize the invisibility of one part of the script to another. The two branches of the narrative – each of which deals with one particular socioeconomic class – are interconnected by a specific event: the death of the village patriarch, which also fulfils its symbolic purpose, but none of the characters that constitute these classes recognizes this. All of them work towards their own individual dreams and aspirations without realizing that this quest of theirs’ shapes and is shaped by the others’ as well. The setting of the story is contemporary no doubt, but there is scarcely anything contemporary about it. It might be true that the remains of feudalism still plague the country’s rural regions, but given that the economic system that drives this problem even today has flourished upon the idea of death of feudalism and even promotes itself at the cost of feudalism, Kanasembo Kudureyaneri comes across as a slightly anachronistic (and assimilable-into-mainstream) film. Having said that, I must also add that the film brings Kasaravalli’s filmography to a very interesting point where, with the support of the finesse of perspective and approach that previous few films have worked towards, he can plunge into more globalized, potentially uncomfortable issues with a more refined and rigorous control over his craft. I think the next one will be mighty interesting.

 

(Image Courtesy: Various)

 


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